Jul 212012

A common criticism of those who train horses using positive reinforcement is that we are so busy discussing behavioural theory that we do not do anything practical with our horses, just a few “tricks”. Or that our training is so constrained by theory that there is no “feel”. Or that what little practical work we do with our horses takes so long it is not viable for most people. Or that we have dangerous horses who gallop into busy roads and leave us waiting desperately for them to stop so we can click and treat.

I’m not being facetious, I have been accused of all these things and I would argue that none of them is true. So what do we do with our horses?

Most of us learn to use positive reinforcement via clicker training. And when starting clicker training it is true that most of us start with simple targeting exercises that may be perceived as “just tricks” by the uninitiated. But targeting is considerably more than just a trick. It involves the horse spontaneously touching a novel object in order to earn a treat. The handler clicks at the exact moment the horse performs the correct behaviour and this helps the horse to understand which behaviour has earned the reward. In order to succeed, via a certain amount of trial and error, the horse must overcome any fear or wariness of the target, it must inhibit any other behaviours such as mugging or biting and it must make a choice to act autonomously. The horse also starts to associate us and our training with good things happening. So even in the early stages of clicker training, we are using the clicker to help the horse develop in confidence, self-control and personal growth, as well as potentially helping to improve our relationship. Not bad for a few minutes’ work.

A free-shaping session such as this (i.e. using pure positive reinforcement without cues or lures) can be particularly valuable for a horse who is reluctant to offer behaviours as a result of previous aversive training. It provides a safe environment where mistakes are tolerated and not corrected. The horse can learn to make choices, secure in the knowledge that there will be no negative consequence of choosing the wrong answer. Free-shaping can therefore be an extremely valuable tool in the rehabilitation of mistreated horses, with very strong analogies with human counselling. An acute level of “feel” is crucial, taking this approach well beyond the crude “stimulus-response” training of the 1950’s behaviourism movement.

But for the average horse-owner who is not trying to rehab a rescue case…..

Clicker training can be a great tool for solving minor problems. On one livery yard I had to take my horse across a dairy pasture in order to reach his field. All the horses would dive for the grass and we would struggle across, trying unsuccessfully to hold their heads up. I thought it would be a nice clicker exercise and used shaping to teach my horse that it was OK to graze when he heard the click. Initially I would click every couple of strides *well before* he tried to dive for the grass. He started to wait for the click because he knew he was then allowed to have grass. Gradually we increased the number of strides before the click. It wasn’t long before we could cross the dairy pasture before grazing – unlike all the other horses who continued to dive for the grass. I like this example as it illustrates nicely that, although clicker training and shaping may initially appear to be long-winded, they actually save time and solve problems more quickly in the long-term because we are appealing to the horse’s choices rather than fighting them.

Some clicker trainers choose to have a clicker with them at all times so as to “capture” any behaviour they like at any time. Thus clicker training can be used alongside any general handling or riding that people do. For various reasons (and a whole new article in itself), I prefer to reserve clicker training for well-defined clicker sessions but those sessions might specifically be for teaching behaviours such as picking up feet, loading, leading, standing still or learning to move away from light physical pressure. Most commonly I use clicker training for free-shaping over, under, through or around obstacles, picking up a toy or pushing a football for increasing confidence, patience and enhancing a relationship based on mutual trust and choice. I also use it as a way to give my horse scratches on his itchy spots without him demanding too “emphatically” – he will spontaneously back away from me to “ask” for a scratch which is much safer than his previous barging.

Perhaps another key point is not so much what I do as what I do not do. I try to be aware of any inadvertent reinforcement I might be giving my horse which encourages him to behave in ways I see as undesirable. I take note of any behaviours he gives me and, instead of trying to stop them happening, I try to ignore them* and learn the circumstances under which they arise. This takes me to the root cause of the behaviours and so I can remove the cause, rather than worry about the behaviour which typically then disappears of its own accord. Ignoring unwanted behaviours is an essential part of training with positive reinforcement and is perhaps one we tend to over-look when we are thinking about “what to train”. Learning to just sit and observe is difficult, particularly if we perceive that our safety is at risk, but the more I trust in the horse’s innate cooperative nature, the more I can avoid confrontation, increasing both our safety and our mutual trust yet further.

When not engaging in a clicker session I am happy to use mild pressure to make requests of my horse, particularly when riding. But that does not stop me from using the basic principles of learning theory – I am careful to release pressure with good timing and I try to keep the pressure constant so that the horse has a chance to learn how to release it. And, perhaps most crucially, I continue to use shaping. Shaping – i.e. the breaking down of any task into its tiniest component steps – is arguably the factor that is the difference between keeping safe and becoming a liability. If I do not want to exert excessive pressure on my horse in order to keep us safe then I need to have completed sufficient early training that excessive pressure would never be required. It is shaping that almost guarantees that we will not have a dangerous horse who gallops into traffic because we would have never put him in a situation like that – we would have devised a shaping plan with an end goal of “riding safely in traffic” and broken the task into many training steps. There may be the odd rare occasion for which we cannot prepare, but the more we use shaping and a non-confrontational approach, the less we find that our safety is compromised.

(* it may sometimes be necessary to extract myself as quickly and as safely as possible, perhaps resorting to aversives if need be – but this would be a one-off situation into which I would avoid getting again without additional prior shaping/training)

Jul 012012

Welcome to my round up of some of the latest releases in equine science. These scientific equine papers have provided some interesting information sure to spark debate and inform our equine management and training practises; including a most important paper which provides evidence that horses ridden in hyperflexion may experience difficulty breathing because of airway obstruction.

Factors in Horse Training

Does learning performance in horses relate to fearfulness, baseline stress hormone, and social rank?

By Janne Winther, Line Christensen Peerstrup Ahrendt, Randi Lintrup, Charlotte Gaillard, Rupert Palme, Jens Malmkvist

“The ability of horses to learn and remember new tasks is fundamentally important for their use by humans. Fearfulness may, however, interfere with learning, because stimuli in the environment can overshadow signals from the rider or handler. In addition, prolonged high levels of stress hormones can affect neurons within the hippocampus; a brain region central to learning and memory. In a series of experiments, we aimed to investigate the link between performance in two learning tests, the baseline level of stress hormones, measured as faecal cortisol metabolites (FCM), fearfulness, and social rank. Twenty-five geldings (2 or 3 years old) pastured in one group were included in the study. The learning tests were performed by professional trainers and included a number of predefined stages during which the horses were gradually trained to perform exercises, using either negative (NR) or positive reinforcement (PR). Each of the learning tests lasted 3 days; 7min/horse/day. The NR test was repeated in a novel environment. Performance, measured as final stage in the training programme, and heart rate (HR) were recorded. Faeces were collected on four separate days where the horses had been undisturbed at pasture for 48h. Social rank was determined through observations of social interactions during feeding. The fear test was a novel object test during which behaviour and HR were recorded.

Performance in the NR and PR learning tests did not correlate. In the NR test, there was a significant, negative correlation between performance and HR in the novel environment (rS=−0.66, P<0.001, i.e. nervous horses had reduced performance), whereas there was no such correlation in the home environment (both NR and PR). Behavioural reactions in the fear test correlated significantly with performance in the NR test in the novel environment (e.g. object alertness and final stage: rS=−0.43, P=0.04), suggesting that performance under unfamiliar, stressful conditions may be predicted by behavioural responses in a fear test. There was a negative correlation between social rank and baseline stress hormones (rS=−0.43, P=0.04), i.e. high rank corresponded to low FCM concentrations, whereas neither rank nor FCM correlated with fearfulness or learning performance. We conclude that performance under stressful conditions is affected by activation of the sympathetic nervous system during training and related to behavioural responses in a standardised fear test. Learning performance in the home environment, however, appears unrelated to fearfulness, social rank and baseline FCM levels.”


Equine Welfare

Effect of head and neck position on intrathoracic pressure and arterial blood gas values in Dutch Warmblood riding horses during moderate exercise.

By Sleutjens J, Smiet E, van Weeren R, van der Kolk J, Back W, Wijnberg ID.

“OBJECTIVE:To evaluate the effect of various head and neck positions on intrathoracic pressure and arterial oxygenation during exercise in horses.

ANIMALS:7 healthy Dutch Warmblood riding horses.

PROCEDURES:The horses were evaluated with the head and neck in the following predefined positions: position 1, free and unrestrained; position 2, neck raised with the bridge of the nose aligned vertically; position 4, neck lowered and extremely flexed with the nose pointing toward the pectoral muscles; position 5, neck raised and extended with the bridge of the nose in front of a vertical line perpendicular to the ground surface; and position 7, neck lowered and flexed with the nose pointing towards the carpus. The standard exercise protocol consisted of trotting for 10 minutes, cantering for 4 minutes, trotting again for 5 minutes, and walking for 5 minutes. An esophageal balloon catheter was used to indirectly measure intrathoracic pressure. Arterial blood samples were obtained for measurement of Pao(2), Paco(2), and arterial oxygen saturation.

RESULTS:Compared with when horses were in the unrestrained position, inspiratory intrathoracic pressure became more negative during the first trot (all positions), canter and second trot (position 4), and walk (positions 4 and 5). Compared with when horses were in position 1, intrathoracic pressure difference increased in positions 4, 2, 7, and 5; Pao(2) increased in position 5; and arterial oxygen saturation increased in positions 4 and 7.

CONCLUSIONS AND CLINICAL RELEVANCE:Position 4 was particularly influential on intrathoracic pressure during exercise in horses. The effects detected may have been caused by a dynamic upper airway obstruction and may be more profound in horses with upper airway disease.”


More information on the above paper can be found at http://www.thehorse.com/ViewArticle.aspx?ID=20201

On the significance of adult play: what does social play tell us about adult horse welfare?

By Martine Hausberger, Carole Fureix, Marie Bourjade, Sabine Wessel-Robert and Marie-Annick Richard-Yris

“Play remains a mystery and adult play even more so. More typical of young stages in healthy individuals, it occurs rarely at adult stages but then more often in captive/domestic animals, which can imply spatial, social and/or feeding deprivations or restrictions that are challenging to welfare, than in animals living in natural conditions. Here, we tested the hypothesis that adult play may reflect altered welfare states and chronic stress in horses, in which, as in several species, play rarely occurs at adult stages in natural conditions. We observed the behaviour (in particular, social play) of riding school horses during occasional outings in a paddock and measured several stress indicators when these horses were in their individual home boxes. Our results revealed that (1) the number of horses and rates of adult play appeared very high compared to field report data and (2) most stress indicators measured differed between ‘players’ and ‘non-players’, revealing that most ‘playful’ animals were suffering from more chronic stress than ‘non-playful’ horses. Frequency of play behaviour correlated with a score of chronic stress. This first discovery of a relationship between adult play and altered welfare opens new lines of research that certainly deserves comparative studies in a variety of species.”


Training the Ridden Horse

Horse walker use in dressage horses

By T.J. Walker, S.N. Collins and R.C. Murray

“Horse walkers have become popular in the modern exercise regime for dressage horses, however recent investigations of injury risk factors have indicated a significant association between horse walker use and lameness. A detailed telephone questionnaire was conducted to document horse walker usage and assess whether horse walker use could predispose dressage horses to lameness. Information on horse walker features and use, and individual horse lameness history was recorded. Chi-squared tests were performed to identify horse walker variables associated with lameness. Although analyses failed to establish a direct link between lameness and any specific horse walker feature, the high proportion of lame horses in this study suggests that there is an underlying and, as yet, unidentified cause of lameness related to horse walker usage.”


The effect of double bridles and jaw-clamping crank nosebands on temperature of eyes and facial skin of horses

By Paul McGreevy, Amanda Warren-Smith and Yann Guisard

“Any apparatus that restricts a horse’s movement can compromise welfare. Eye temperature as measured remotely using infrared thermography is emerging as a correlate of salivary cortisol concentrations in horses. This article explores the effect on the temperature of the eyes and facial skin of horses wearing devices that restrict jaw movements. In certain equestrian disciplines, unacceptable equine oral activity, such as gaping of the mouth, is penalized because it reflects poor training and lack of compliance. This explains the wide range of nosebands and flash straps designed to prevent the mouth opening. Some of these nosebands are banned from higher-level dressage competitions in which double bridles are mandatory, possibly because they are regarded as restrictive. Nevertheless, the current international rules overlook the possibility that noseband can appear innocuous even though some designs, such as the so-called crank noseband, can be ratcheted shut to clamp the jaws together. Some equestrian manuals and competition rule books propose that “two-fingers” be used as a spacer to guard against overtightening of nosebands but fail to specify where this gauge should be applied. The vagueness of this directive prompted us to undertake a small random survey of the finger dimensions of adult men (n = 10) and women (n = 10). There were significant sex differences in the measurements of fingers of adults (P < 0.001), thus illustrating that the “two-finger rule” is not a reliable guide for standardized noseband fastening. Infrared thermography was used to measure the temperature of facial skin and eyes of adult horses (n = 5) wearing a double bridle with and without a cavesson noseband.

A taper gauge was developed based on the mean circumference of adult index and middle fingers (9.89 ± 0.21 cm), and this was used as a spacer at the nasal planum or beside the mandible when tightening the noseband. The nosebands were fastened significantly tighter when the taper gauge was used beside the mandible than at the nasal planum (P = 0.02). Wearing double bridles and nosebands that had been tightened with and without the taper gauge caused an increase in eye temperature compared with baseline values (P = 0.012), and the tighter the noseband was fastened, the cooler the facial skin of the horse (and, presumably, the greater the impairment of vascular perfusion) when compared with baseline values (P = 0.016). This study suggests that horses wearing double bridles and tight nosebands undergo a physiological stress response and may have compromised vascular perfusion. Consequently, on welfare grounds, the use of nosebands that cause any constriction of jaw movement should be reviewed as soon as possible.”


Pilot study of behavior responses in young riding horses using 2 methods of making transitions from trot to walk

By Agneta Egenvalla, Marie Eisersiöb and Lars Roepstorffc

“According to the principles of negative reinforcement, when an aid has been given to an animal, it should be released as soon as the desired response has been achieved, and, if performed well, may be associated with fewer conflict behaviors than otherwise. In riding, pressure in the horse’s mouth from the bit is used to give signals to the horse, and both rein tension and patterns of releasing this tension will vary. The aim of this pilot study was to study horse behavior during 2 different methodologies used to shape relatively naïve horses to a deceleration signal while making downward transitions from trot to walk. Method 1 involved relief from rein tension at the first attempt to perform a correct response (M1), and method 2 entailed that rein tension was relieved at the completed correct response (M2). Four horses were ridden by 4 riders over 4 days (1 rider each day), and each horse made 10 transitions each day for each method, which produced 320 transitions. Rein tension was recorded, and horse behavior and rider signal behaviors were evaluated from video recordings. Horse behavior was divided into the following 3 different categories: “pushing against the bit,” “moving away from the bit,” and “decelerating.” Linear models were constructed tracking the percent of the transition time that horses demonstrated at least 1 behavior in the “pushing against the bit,” “moving away from the bit,” and “decelerating” categories, and with random effects for rider, horse, and transition number nested within horse. Fixed effects analyzed were the methods, proportion of the transition time above 30 N for each rein, and the rider signal behaviors. M1 and M2 had on average 19% (standard deviation: 16) and 38% (standard deviation: 23) of the time with >30 N per rein, respectively. In the models for the “pushing against the bit” behaviors, M2 increased rein tension and “exerting pressure on the reins” increased the level of these behaviors. “Releasing pressure” interacted with “pulling back on the reins”; this combination was associated with an increased level of “pushing against the bit” behaviors. The “decelerating” behavior was associated with lower rein tension. In the “decelerating” behavior models, “pulling back on the reins” led to decreased “decelerating” behavior, whereas “still hand” and “releasing pressure” led to increased “decelerating” behavior; however, the interaction “pulling back on the reins” and “releasing pressure” led to decreased “decelerating” behavior. “Moving away from the bit” had no significant determinants. We concluded that fewer “pushing against the bit” behaviors were created by M1 and that a lower rein tension was associated with the “decelerating” behavior. Reinforcing the horse’s attempts, to assist in finding the correct response, benefits the welfare of the horse, and importance of a light hand should be continuously emphasized during riding education.”


Equipment and training risk factors associated with ridden behaviour problems in UK leisure horses

By Jo Hockenhull and Emma Creighton

“Ridden behaviour problems are prevalent in the UK leisure horse population and may have implications for horse welfare and rider safety. This study aimed to identify risk factors associated with ridden behaviour problems in UK leisure horses from the training approaches and equipment used with them. An Internet survey was used to collect data on 1326 horses from a convenience sample of leisure horse owners. The survey asked owners to report the frequency their horses displayed fifteen ridden behaviour problems over the previous week. Data on the frequency of occurrence of behaviour in four components of related ridden behaviour problems were explored for association with details of the horse’s working life, including the type of tack, equipment and training used, and the frequency the professional services of saddlers and farriers were employed using logistic regression analyses. Behaviour data were generated for 791 individual horses. Risk factors associated with the ridden behaviour problems emerged as three themes. One related to the design and fit of the saddle, with dressage and working hunter saddles associated with a reduced risk of ridden behaviour problems compared to general purpose saddles. The horse’s footcare and shoeing regime was associated with three of the four groups of behaviour problems. An extended interval (seven weeks or more) between farrier visits was associated with an increased risk of discomfort behaviour. Taking an outcome-centred approach to training, for example through the use of artificial training aids, was associated with an increased risk of behaviour problems while spending more time with the horse outside of training situations, a more horse-centred approach, was associated with a reduced risk of problems. Further research is required to understand the causal relationships behind these associations, with the aim of improving the welfare of the horse and the well-being and safety of its rider.”


I hope you enjoy this collection of abstracts as much as I did. If you have a question about any of the abstracts or the terminology used, please feel free to leave a comment or email me and I will happily answer your questions.

Emma Lethbridge

(Emma@theequineindependent.com or E.M.Lethbridge@shu.ac.uk)